Wuyipeng and My Progress As a Birder

Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station is one of the best birding sites in China. Set in thick forest 550 m above the Shaotang River Valley at an elevation of 2570 m, the abandoned panda research station near Wolong, Sichuan is reachable only by foot. The steep climb and complex avifauna intimidate the young birder–but challenge and fulfill the experienced birder.

I know, for I have been both. In July 2010 I made my first visit to Wuyipeng. I was a new birder, alone and untrained. Wuyipeng overwhelmed me. When I returned in 2017, I had seven years of study under my belt, I was with my mentor Michael Grunwell, and we hardly missed a bird.

In 2010 I was hooked on bird photography. I carried to the top my equipment, all 10.5 kg of it. At the time, I had only one way of intensely experiencing a bird–by photographing it. Photography was my sole pathway to intensity because, at the time, I knew little about birds.

Two types of habitat predominate around Wuyipeng. The first (top) is secondary mixed hardwood-conifer. Among the species we noted in this habitat were Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, Bay Woodpecker Blythipicus pyrrhotis, Long-tailed Minivet Pericrocotus ethologus, Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, and Chestnut Thrush Turdus rubrocanus. The second habitat (bottom) is bamboo. Among the species we saw here were Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata, Aberrant Bush Warbler Horornis flavolivaceus, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta Lioparus chrysotis. (Craig Brelsford)
Two types of habitat predominate around the station. Top: mixed hardwood-conifer. Among the species we noted in this habitat were Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, Bay Woodpecker Blythipicus pyrrhotis, Long-tailed Minivet Pericrocotus ethologus, and Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes. Bottom: bamboo. Here we found Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata, Aberrant Bush Warbler Horornis flavolivaceus, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta Lioparus chrysotis. (Craig Brelsford)

The more I learned about birds, the less obsessed I became with photographing them. I developed new ways of relating to birds–observing them closely, studying their habitats, recording their voices, and writing about them.

And crucially, by 2017 I had made friends with birders who know more than I about birds. Michael Grunwell is one of them. Michael has been building his life list since he was a teen-ager in the 1970s. Michael not only knows birds, but he also knows how to know birds.

Like your mother at the grocery store, Michael arrives at a site with a shopping list–his target species. He has read up on the species he wants and knows what to look for.

For example: Michael and I arrive at a creek deep in the forest. “Creekside habo!” I say to Michael. “What’s your target?”

“Play Chinese Wren-babbler,” Michael says.

I pull out my iPhone and find a recording of Chinese Wren-babbler that I downloaded from xeno-canto.org. I Bluetooth it through my speaker, and within seconds I get a response.

Chinese Wren-babbler Pnoepyga mutica, along stream (30.991680, 103.160400) near Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station, Wolong, Sichuan. Elev. 2570 m. 20 May 2017 (00:03; 1.7 MB)

Had my birding skills remained at the level of 2010, and had I not partly assimilated Michael’s birding style, then I would have missed Chinese Wren-babbler and many other species. I would have been bored, for in the dark, lush forest, photo opportunities are few (and in any case, this time I wisely decided not to lug my camera up the hill). Because I had progressed beyond photography, I was highly stimulated and had a sense of control. It was a great feeling.

The difference in elevation between Jinjiapo (2020 m) and Wuyipeng (2570 m) is 550 m (1,810 ft.). The steep climb is a fromidable barrier and keeps out all but the most dedicated and fit birders. (Craig Brelsford)
The difference in elevation between the valley bottom (2020 m) and Wuyipeng (2570 m) is 550 m (1,810 ft.). The steep climb is a formidable barrier, keeping out all but the most dedicated birders. (Craig Brelsford)

Even a non-birder would feel good up there. Wuyipeng achieves a perfect balance: It is developed just enough to allow access, being one of the few places in the area with a good hiking trail; yet it remains a wilderness, for the steep climb is a formidable barrier, and visitors are few. In 2010 and again in 2017, we saw no one.

Making Wuyipeng even more interesting is the greater region of which it is a part. Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan are, ornithologically speaking, the Center of Asia. Himalaya, Indo-Malaya, Palearctica–like tectonic plates, the great eco-regions collide here. Various groups of birds, most notably the parrotbills, have their center of distribution in or near Sichuan (Robson).

Michael Grunwell viewing mixed flock of six species of tit amid ruins of Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station, 20 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Michael Grunwell viewing six species of tit amid the ruins of the Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station. The multimillion-dollar panda research center was abandoned in the wake of the Wenchuan Earthquake of 2008. The station is one of the few open areas in the forest and is an outstanding place to view birds. (Craig Brelsford)

The avian diversity here is unmatched in the temperate world. During a bird wave at the station, a single tree held six species of tit: Fire-capped Tit Cephalopyrus flammiceps, Yellow-browed Tit Sylviparus modestus, Coal Tit Periparus ater, Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus, Pere David’s Tit Poecile davidi, and Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus. That is half as many species of parid in a single tree as are found in the entire United States and Canada.

The mountain also yielded six members of a single genus, Phylloscopus: Chinese Leaf Warbler P. yunnanensis, Greenish Warbler P. trochiloides, Large-billed Leaf Warbler P. magnirostris, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler P. claudiae, Emei Leaf Warbler P. emeiensis, and Sichuan Leaf Warbler P. forresti.

We had Indian Blue Robin at Lama Temple as well as on the steep hillside leading to Wuyipeng. (Craig Brelsford)
At Lama Temple (31.029363, 103.166572), where I got these photos, as well as on the steep hillside leading to Wuyipeng, Michael and I thrilled to the song of Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea. The song, described by Collar as ‘a sweet jumble of rapid trilling notes,’ is similar to the song of Siberian Blue Robin L. cyane, which I studied in Heilongjiang in 2016. Unlike the Siberian Blues I met, which invariably sang from thick cover close to the ground, the Indian Blues we found would often sing from perches high in the trees, as in the photos above. (Craig Brelsford)

We had Firethroat singing in thick undergrowth on the hillside, and just a few meters away a heart-stopping encounter with male Temminck’s Tragopan tiptoeing across the trail. Golden Pheasant called unseen, exquisite Indian Blue Robin and Chestnut-headed Tesia were singing, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta added color. We had a migrating flock of 40 Tibetan Serin.

We noted 49 species in all. Michael called 20 May 2017 one of his best birding days in his four years in China. I called it one of my best birding days, period.

Wuyipeng was the biggest but certainly not the only highlight of our four days, 18-21 May 2017, in the Wolong-Balangshan area. Michael and I covered altitudes between 2000 m and 4500 m on the 79-km stretch of the S303 between Wolong and Rilong. We noted 110 species.

Gamebirds of Balangshan. Clockwise from L: Snow Partridge, White Eared Pheasant, Blood Pheasant. (Craig Brelsford)
Gamebirds of Balangshan. Clockwise from L: Snow Partridge Lerwa lerwa, White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon, and Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus. We noted all three species on the trip, but these photos came from earlier in my birding career, when my chief focus was photography. The Snow Partridge I photographed 29 July 2010 above Balangshan Pass (30.9108, 102.8947), the White Eared Pheasant 7 Aug. 2011 at Pujie Temple (29.158287, 100.176267), and the Blood Pheasant 1 Aug. 2011 at Pamuling Temple (30.101555, 101.181815). All three locations are in Sichuan. (Craig Brelsford)

Gamebirds were richly represented. We noted eight species: Snow Partridge Lerwa lerwa, Verreaux’s Monal-Partridge Tetraophasis obscurus, Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus, Temminck’s Tragopan Tragopan temminckii, Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha, White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilonGolden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus, and Lady Amherst’s Pheasant C. amherstiae.

At the famous tunnel area (30.877921, 102.966226) we made only a half-hearted effort to see Chinese Monal, which Michael had seen before. Higher up, we looked for but missed Tibetan Snowcock.

To the list of the six leaf-warbler species from Wuyipeng we added Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis, Buff-barred Warbler P. pulcher, and Hume’s Leaf Warbler P. humei, giving us a total of nine over the four days.

We found Collared Grosbeak and Sichuan Thrush along the S303, we spotted Grandala on the slopes at high altitude, and in the alpine scrub we found Sichuan Tit, Chinese Rubythroat, and Chinese Fulvetta.

Sichuan Thrush (Craig Brelsford)
Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps, Wolong-Balangshan Road (S303), 30.891258, 102.975770 (3380 m), 21 May 2017. This is the second member of the Plain-backed Thrush complex that I have photographed. In June 2014, in collaboration with Per Alström, I photographed Himalayan Thrush Z. salimalii at Dulong Gorge, Yunnan. (Craig Brelsford)

The route from Wolong over the Balangshan Pass to Rilong is a marvel, one of the great drives of China. The new Balangshan Tunnel reduces the driving distance between Wolong and Rilong from 96 km to 79 km.

A series of tunnels linking Wolong to the G213 and Chengdu has been completed, a monumental feat of engineering.

With the improvements in infrastructure, and with the continued expansion of the rental-car industry in China, Wuyipeng and Balangshan are now open to Shanghai birders with only a few days to spare, as was the case with Michael and me.

After a full workday 17 May, we flew that night from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport to Chengdu. We picked up our car from Shenzhou, drove 125 km (three hours) to Wolong, and at daylight on 18 May were taking in the dawn chorus at Lama Temple.

We stayed at the clean Lín Huì Fàndiàn (临惠饭店, +86 153-5143-1887, +86 152-8151-1256). For our night on the Rilong side, I once again used Kāi Fù Shān Zhuāng (开富山庄, +86 150-8250-0382).

We birded half a day on 21 May before calling it a trip.

As Michael and I departed the mountains for Chengdu, zipping through the world-class tunnels, we reviewed the eventful past four days. I thought further back to 2010, when the road to Wolong was bumpy, dusty, and dangerous, and when I knew little about birds.

I have become a better birder. Wuyipeng and Balangshan have become easier places to bird. Progress is occurring, and on more front than one.

VIDEOS

Quiet moments in the forest near Wuyipeng.

In 2010, I carried my heavy equipment to the top. I was laughing even then.

SOUND RECORDINGS

Below, a selection of my sound-recordings from the Sichuan trip. For even more sound-recordings and photos, and for our day lists from Sichuan, please see the eBird citations in the Bibliography below.

Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, Wuyipeng, 20 May 2017 (00:16; 1.5 MB)

Firethroat Calliope pectardens, trail to Wuyipeng, 20 May. 30.999205, 103.154595. (01:54; 6.1 MB)

Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea, Lama Temple, 18 May (00:43; 2.5 MB)

Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata, Wuyipeng, 20 May (00:48; 3.5 MB)

Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps, along S303, 21 May. 30.891258, 102.975770. (00:04; 987 KB)

Martens’s Warbler Seicercus omeiensis, Lama Temple, 19 May (02:54; 8.6 MB)

LIST OF PLACE NAMES

Dawn, Wolong-Balangshan Road, 19 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Dawn, tunnel area (30.877921, 102.966226), Wolong-Balangshan Road, 19 May 2017. As well as one of the best birding areas in temperate Asia, Wolong-Balangshan is a place of great natural beauty. (Craig Brelsford)

Balangshan Pass (Bālángshān Kǒu [八郎山口]): mountain divide & birding area, Sichuan. Elev. 4481 m (14,701 ft.). 30.9108, 102.8947.

Lama Monastery: see Lama Temple.

Lama Temple (Lǎma Sì [喇嘛寺]): birding site & place of worship, Wolong. Elev. 2230 m (7,320 ft.). 31.029363, 103.166572.

Rilong (Rìlóng Zhèn [日隆镇]) (30.9935765, 102.8299713): town W of Balangshan Pass on S303. Also known as Sìgūniángshān Zhèn.

Sìgūniángshān Zhèn (四姑娘山镇): another name for Rilong.

Wolong (Wòlóng Zhèn [卧龙镇]): town E of Balangshan Pass on S303. 31.0395827, 103.1984586.

Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station (Zhōngguó Bǎohù Dàxióngmāo Yánjiū Zhōngxīn, Wǔyīpéng Yěwài Guāncházhàn [中国保护大熊猫研究中心, 五一棚野外观察站]): research center in thick forest near Wolong. Damaged & abandoned after Wenchuan Earthquake of 12 May 2008. Elev. 2570 m (8,430 ft.). 30.994128, 103.159845. Begin your walk at Jīnjiāpō (金家坡, 31.004395, 103.151987). Park your car at any of the local folks’ homes.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36952551. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: July 15, 2017). Note: This is the first of five lists we made for 18 May 2017. This list covers Lama Monastery.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954305. Note: This is list 2/5 for 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954394. Note: List 3/5, 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954414. Note: List 4/5, 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954445. Note: List 5/5, 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980196. Note: List 1/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980217. Note: List 2/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980192. Note: List 3/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36979053. Note: List 4/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980247. Note: List 5/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36978948. Note: List 6/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37003578. Note: List of birds noted at Wuyipeng, 20 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37021548. Note: List 1/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37022288. Note: List 2/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37026720. Note: List 3/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37029131. Note: List 4/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37081320. Note: List 5/5, 21 May 2017.

Collar, N.J. (2005). Family Turdidae (Thrushes). P. 748 (Indian Blue Robin) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2005). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

eBird. 2017. eBird hotspot: Wuyipeng Research Station, Sichuan, CN: http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L947367. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: July 15, 2017).

Robson, C. (2006). Family Paradoxornithidae (Parrotbills). P. 292 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 12. Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

BIRDS NOTED IN SICHUAN, 18-21 MAY 2017 (110 SPECIES)

Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus
Snow Partridge Lerwa lerwa
Verreaux’s Monal-Partridge Tetraophasis obscurus
Temminck’s Tragopan Tragopan temminckii
Golden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus
Lady Amherst’s Pheasant C. amherstiae
White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon
Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha
Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus
Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus
Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Snow Pigeon C. leuconota
Speckled Wood Pigeon C. hodgsonii
Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus
Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides
Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus
Common Cuckoo C. canorus
Salim Ali’s Swift Apus salimalii
Great Barbet Psilopogon virens
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Bay Woodpecker Blythipicus pyrrhotis
Saker Falcon Falco cherrug
Long-tailed Minivet Pericrocotus ethologus
Grey-backed Shrike Lanius tephronotus
Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus
Fire-capped Tit Cephalopyrus flammiceps
Yellow-browed Tit Sylviparus modestus
Coal Tit Periparus ater
Rufous-vented Tit P. rubidiventris
Yellow-bellied Tit P. venustulus
Pere David’s Tit Poecile davidi
Sichuan Tit P. weigoldicus
Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus
Black-browed Bushtit Aegithalos iouschistos
Chestnut-vented Nuthatch Sitta nagaensis
Hodgson’s Treecreeper Certhia hodgsoni
Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii
Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Chinese Wren-babbler Pnoepyga mutica
Pygmy Wren-babbler P. pusilla
Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes
Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler H. acanthizoides
Aberrant Bush Warbler H. flavolivaceus
Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis
Buff-barred Warbler P. pulcher
Sichuan Leaf Warbler P. forresti
Chinese Leaf Warbler P. yunnanensis
Hume’s Leaf Warbler P. humei
Greenish Warbler P. trochiloides
Large-billed Leaf Warbler P. magnirostris
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler P. claudiae
Emei Leaf Warbler P. emeiensis
Martens’s Warbler Seicercus omeiensis
Bianchi’s Warbler S. valentini
Rufous-capped Babbler Stachyridopsis ruficeps
Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus gravivox
Chinese Babax Babax lanceolatus
Spotted Laughingthrush Garrulax ocellatus
Giant Laughingthrush G. maximus
Elliot’s Laughingthrush Trochalopteron elliotii
Golden-breasted Fulvetta Lioparus chrysotis
White-browed Fulvetta Fulvetta vinipectus
Chinese Fulvetta F. striaticollis
Grey-hooded Fulvetta F. cinereiceps
White-collared Yuhina Yuhina diademata
Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus
Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps
Chestnut Thrush Turdus rubrocanus
Fujian Niltava Niltava davidi
Verditer Flycatcher Eumyias thalassinus
Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea
Chinese Rubythroat Calliope tschebaiewi
Firethroat C. pectardens
Grandala Grandala coelicolor
Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus
Slaty-blue Flycatcher Ficedula tricolor
Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher F. strophiata
Blue-fronted Redstart Phoenicurus frontalis
Plumbeous Water Redstart P. fuliginosus
White-capped Redstart P. leucocephalus
Daurian Redstart P. auroreus
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird Aethopyga gouldiae
Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris
Rufous-breasted Accentor P. strophiata
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
White Wagtail M. alba
Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni
Plain Mountain Finch Leucosticte nemoricola
Dark-breasted Rosefinch Carpodacus nipalensis
Common Rosefinch C. erythrinus
Pink-rumped Rosefinch C. waltoni
Vinaceous Rosefinch C. vinaceus
Sharpe’s Rosefinch C. verreauxii
Chinese White-browed Rosefinch C. dubius
Twite Carduelis flavirostris
Tibetan Serin Spinus thibetanus
Collared Grosbeak Mycerobas affinis
Slaty Bunting Emberiza siemsseni

Featured image: Themes from Wuyipeng, 20 May 2017. Clockwise from top L: Craig Brelsford in sea of bamboo; male Firethroat Calliope pectardens (photo from Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, 5 June 2014); sign at Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station; rich forest near station. All by Craig Brelsford.

GUEST POST: Review of Nikon P900S

Editor’s note: Shanghai birders Kane Xu (L) and Michael Grunwell share a laugh after discovering that they both own the same model of camera, the Nikon Coolpix P900S. In this guest post, written exclusively for shanghaibirding.com, Kane tells us why he uses this versatile little imaging machine.

Review of Nikon Coolpix P900S
© 2017 by Kane Xu (徐时开)
for shanghaibirding.com

I’m a birder, not a photographer. I’ve played around with compact digital cameras, DSLRs, and even, in my early years, SLR cameras with film. But I have no interest in the vast amount of DSLR bodies and lenses. What I need is a tool to record targets, especially birds I do not recognize.

My requirements are simple. First, my camera must be affordable; second, my camera must give me a realistic ability to shoot birds (in particular, it must have a long focal length); and third, my camera must be non-DSLR.

I have studied many brands, among them some types by Sony that are very compact in size and offer high magnification. But my experience with binoculars and field telescopes has taught me a fundamental physical rule: When you need high magnification, you must have a lens with a big diameter in order to allow more light to get through. Therefore, I finally gave up on those pocket digital cameras and bought the Nikon Coolpix P900S.

Let us look at the P900S as it relates to bird photography.

ADVANTAGES OF THE P900S

Birding mode. I love it! Most people set their camera to P, A, S, or even M mode when taking photos, ignoring the auto or preset modes. I always use birding mode.

Normally, when you power on your camera, the zooming position is at 24 mm (the widest view). In birding mode, you just press the OK button, and the camera automatically zooms to 800 mm.

With the automatic zoom to 800 mm, there is no need to hold the zooming trigger for seconds. And of course you can always continue zooming to the max value, 2000 mm, by turning the zooming trigger. Auto-zoom is a fast and convenient way to get your camera from power-on to ready-to-shoot.

Birding mode, notice the little gray square at the center of the display, this is where it will be framed once you press the OK button and zooming to 800mm. The focusing mode is also set to “center” by default, indicated by white [ ] mark at center. (Kane Xu).
In birding mode, a little grey square appears at the center of the display. This is where the P900S will frame the image once you press OK and the camera auto-zooms to 800 mm. Note also that the focusing mode is set by default to ‘center,’ as indicated by the white brackets ([ ]). (Kane Xu)
The shooting parameters (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) are set automatically. The goal of birding mode is to get you the photo no matter the light conditions. There is not much of a problem in bright light, but when it’s dark, even in P, S, A, or M mode, you would need to manually raise the ISO. In birding mode, by contrast, the P900S adjusts ISO automatically. All you need to do is take the shot.

Manual focusing. This is also a very important feature, especially for birders. There are situations in which your bird is in a bush with branches and leaves all around it. Your lens is desperate, always focusing on the leaf; your target jumps away before you take a shot. Under such circumstances, manual focus is a must. The P900S has a side trigger on the lens. See photo below.

There’s white marker on edge of the focused targets so you can know if that bird is really get focused, rather than judge by the target is blur or not in the LCD display. (Kane Xu)
The default function of the side trigger (above) is zooming, but you can change it to focusing. When you hold your camera with both hands, you can zoom with the index finger of your right hand and do the manual focusing with the thumb of your left hand. (Kane Xu)

Sometimes manual focus makes the difference between a blown opportunity and a useful record shot. When Fairy Pitta, a notoriously shy species, appeared in Shanghai in September 2016, I was happy to get the record shot below. Without manual focusing, even this image would have been impossible.

Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, September 2016. (Kane Xu)
Fairy Pitta, Cape Nanhui, September 2016, photographed using manual focus on the P900S. (Kane Xu)

VR. Nikon claims a vibration-reduction level of 5 for the P900S. The VR on this model is really good. To see how good, watch the video below, in which I hand-hold the camera:

Great video quality. Even in low light, the P900S delivers super video. Here’s a sample:

DISADVANTAGES OF THE P900S

Portability. The P900S is big–as large as a DSLR. It definitely takes up space in a bag.

No continuous shooting. Despite the big size (mainly big lens), birding mode, and manual focusing, at its core the P900S is still a compact digital camera. Among other things, that means you cannot do continuous shooting, as in a DSLR. (A DSLR is like a machine gun; the P900S is like a sniper rifle.)

The view finder is not optical. There is a mini-LCD screen in the view finder, and it shows the very same elements as the big LCD on the body. The non-optical view finder makes finding a bird difficult in thick vegetation.

There is a solution, however: an extra finder. The video above, “Goldcrest at GuCun park,” was made with the help of the extra finder.

With the extra finder, there’s no problem to find the target anymore! (Kane Xu)
With the extra finder, there’s no problem finding the target anymore! (Kane Xu)

SUMMARY

Consider the following before you buy your own P900S:

Budget. A big lens and DSLR will get you better pictures, but never at a price as low as the P900S.

Goals. Do you want photos that could grace the cover of a magazine? If so, then the P900S may not be your camera. Are you content merely to make a very good visual record of the birds you see? If so, then the P900S may be right for you.

Size. Thought not a “cannon,” the P900S is also not a pocket camera.

Thanks for reading my review, and thanks to Craig for publishing it on shanghaibirding.com!

Meet Kai Pflug, Nanhui’s Mr. Clean

Let’s hear it for Kai Pflug! The Shanghai-based German birder has taken it upon himself to clean up Nanhui, Shanghai’s best-known birding area. On Sun. 11 Sept. 2016, Kai hauled out two bagfuls of trash from Nanhui’s Microforest 2 (30.926138, 121.970795), and I’m proud to say my wife Elaine Du helped Kai out on Microforest 1. Kai has long been cleaning the microforests, and his work has had a big effect on those precious migrant traps.

In his car, Kai keeps six pairs of tongs as well as a roll of plastic bags. Kai told me he uses tongs “to show others that it’s possible to clean up trash without getting your hands dirty!” He keeps six pairs so that others can join him in his quest to keep the microforests clean.

Photographers await Fairy Pitta on Sunday in Microforest 2.
Photographers await Fairy Pitta in Microforest 2.

As if his work on the trash weren’t enough, Kai further burnished his eco-credentials Sunday morning at Microforest 2. There, about 30 photographers have set up camp to photograph Fairy Pitta, a species that has been present in the tiny wood since early September. Someone had speared mealworms onto a metal hook. The hook could rip the mouth of a hungry pitta. Kai spied the hook, marched into the setup, and tore it down. In his good Chinese, the product of 12 years living in this country, Kai explained to the surprised photographers, “This isn’t good! It can kill birds.”

A Fairy Pitta leaps toward a food item at the photography setup in Microforest 2, 11 Sept. 2016. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
A Fairy Pitta leaps toward a food item at the photography setup in Microforest 2, 11 Sept. 2016. Photo by Craig Brelsford.

Kai’s actions Sunday were the backdrop to an eventful birding day. Partnering yet again with veteran British birder Michael Grunwell, Elaine and I noted 75 species. We birded the well-known coastal sites at Nanhui as well as the sod farm south of Pudong Airport. We had our first migrant bunting of the season, endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting; Himalayan Swiftlet in the skies above the Magic Parking Lot (30.882784, 121.972782); and Pechora Pipit in the wet agricultural land north of Lúcháo (芦潮; 30.851111, 121.848528).

Other goodies were Lesser Coucal catching a frog, Asian Stubtail joining Fairy Pitta at the photography setup, and season’s first Yellow-browed Warbler, Siberian Thrush, and Blue-and-white Flycatcher. We had Green Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, and a migrating flock of Red Turtle Dove near the Pechoras and Eurasian Wryneck in the recently planted trees on the inner base of the sea wall. The microforests yielded a second Fairy Pitta, 8 Black-naped Oriole, 7 Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, and a good count of 12 Siberian Blue Robin.

This Black-naped Oriole, one of eight we found Sunday at Nanhui, was in full migration mode and very hungry. A forest dweller, Black-naped Oriole is usually among the shyest of birds, but this juvenile was foraging in the open and allowed us to approach while it searched frantically for food. It even sampled a flower petal!
This Black-naped Oriole, one of eight we found Sunday at Nanhui, was in full migration mode and very hungry. A forest dweller, Black-naped Oriole is usually among the shyest of birds, but this juvenile was foraging in the open and allowed us to approach while it searched frantically for food. It even sampled a flower petal!

Our trip to the sod farm was cut short by rain. Before the shower we noted ca. 800 Oriental Pratincole. Obviously this grassy area is important to the species, which breeds in the Shanghai region and which with the development of Pudong has seen a dramatic shrinkage of its territory.

On Mon. 5 Sept. Elaine and I did our first urban birding of the season at Shanghai’s Century Park. Among the 24 species we noted were passage migrants Oriental Dollarbird, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.

Siberian Blue Robin, among the 12 we found Sunday in the microforests of Nanhui. In Nanhui one usually views these secretive birds from a distance and obscured by branches and leaves, as shown in the two left-hand panels. On their breeding grounds in Heilongjiang, <a href="http://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/boli-may-june-2016/" target="_blank">where this past spring Elaine and I studied Siberian Blue Robin and other northeast China breeders</a>, one is lucky to get even this good a view.
Siberian Blue Robin, among the 12 we found Sunday in the microforests of Nanhui. In Nanhui one usually views these secretive birds from a distance and obscured by branches and leaves, as shown in the two left-hand panels. On their breeding grounds in Heilongjiang, where this past spring Elaine and I studied Siberian Blue Robin and other northeast China breeders, one is lucky to get even this good a view.

Day Lists
My first reference is IOC World Bird List.

List 1 of 1 for Mon. 5 Sept. 2016 (24 species). Century Park (Shìjì Gōngyuán [世纪公园]; 31.219361, 121.551900), Pudong, Shanghai, China. Most cloudy with drizzle; low 23° C, high 29° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind E 11 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 87 (moderate). Sunrise 05:33, sunset 18:11. MON 05 SEP 2016 14:10-17:00. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 5 (3 juvs.)
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 1
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 12
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 6 (ads. & juvs.)
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove ) Columba livia 6
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 25
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major 1
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 3
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach 9
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus 65 (ads. & juvs.)
Japanese Tit Parus minor 5
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 40 (ads. & juvs.)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 61
Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus 3
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 1
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 65 (ads. & juvs.)
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta 1
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica 1
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 15
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis 3
Chinese Grosbeak Eophona migratoria 8

List 1 of 2 for Sun. 11 Sept. 2016 (73 species)

Lesser Coucal with prey, Nanhui, 11 Sept. 2016.
Lesser Coucal with prey.

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]; 30.920507, 121.973159), Pudong, Shanghai, China. Includes birds found along Shijitang Road between 31.000204, 121.938145 & 30.851114, 121.848527, among them Microforest 1 (30.924008, 121.971712) & Microforest 2 (30.926138, 121.970795). Cloudy, turning rainy. Low 21° C, high 27° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind ENE 12 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 132 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:36, sunset 18:03. SUN 11 SEP 2016 06:25-15:05. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Garganey Anas querquedula 30
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 42
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 15
Great Egret A. alba 2
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 4
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 110
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 6
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 6
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 8
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 1
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 20
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa melanuroides 1
Broad-billed Sandpiper Calidris falcinellus 1
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata 25
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta 1
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis 12
Dunlin C. alpina 15
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 12
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe  G. stenura/megala 15
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus 1
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 1
Grey-tailed Tattler T. brevipes 1
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 3
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis 8
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 30
Little Tern Sternula albifrons 10
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica 2
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus 50
Whiskered Tern C. hybrida 10
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia 2
Red Turtle Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica 11 (flock)
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 8
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis 1
Cuculus sp. 10
Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris 1
Pacific Swift Apus pacificus 15
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 1
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha 2
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 19
Long-tailed Shrike L. schach 32
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis 8
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata 7
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica ca. 200
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 10
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps 1
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus 2
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler P. borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas 6
Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes/borealoides 12
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus 8
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis 3
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 4
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 7
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 4
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 30
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta 1
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica 6
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana 2
Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane 12
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia 1
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 1
Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica 2
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus 8
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 17
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 120
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis 50
White Wagtail M. alba leucopsis 5
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 2
Pechora Pipit A. gustavi 2
Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola 1

List 2 of 2 for Sun. 11 Sept. 2016 (8 species). Birds noted at sod farm south of Pudong International Airport (31.112586, 121.824742), Pudong, Shanghai, China. Cloudy, turning rainy. Low 21° C, high 27° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind ENE 12 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 132 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:36, sunset 18:03. SUN 11 SEP 2016 15:30-16:10. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius ca. 200
Long-toed Stint Calidris subminuta 1
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 20
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe G. stenura/megala 10
Common/Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe G. gallinago/stenura/megala 30
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 8
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola 2
Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum ca. 800
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis ca. 50

Featured image: Kai Pflug picks up litter at Microforest 1, Nanhui, Shanghai, 11 Sept. 2016. Photos by Craig Brelsford.

Lesser Shortwing and the Joy of Low-light Photography

On my recent trip to Longheng, Guangxi, I rediscovered the joy of low-light photography.

Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I were at a blind. Well past sunset, long after the other photographers had left, we were still there. First the thrushes retired, then the White-tailed Robin.

Suddenly, Lesser Shortwing popped out.

This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
This dorsal view provides plenty of detail. Note the short wings and stubby tail. F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.

Through the gloom we could just make out the form of a small bird. So dark was it by now that I could ID the bird only by the photos I was taking of it.

The shortwing helped itself to a few mealworms and took a bath. It had no competition. Its strategy was to wait out the bigger birds and use its tolerance for very low light as an advantage. We got sustained views and photos of a rarely seen bird.

The shortwing was the capstone on another successful project in low-light bird photography. Ever since a magical morning in June 2010, when I photographed Fairy Pitta in the pre-dawn light at Dongzhai, Henan, I have been drawn to photographing forest birds in low light.

This image of a Fairy Pitta got me hooked on low-light bird photography. I was using the old Nikon D300 and my current 600 mm F/4 lens. With that camera, I was afraid to go above ISO 250! But the pitta was a perfect model, standing motionless for seconds at a time. Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010. F/8, 0.80, ISO 250.
This image of a Fairy Pitta got me hooked on low-light bird photography. I was using the old Nikon D300 and my current 600 mm F/4 lens. With that camera, I was afraid to go above ISO 250! But the pitta was a perfect model, standing motionless for seconds at a time. Dongzhai, Henan, 5 June 2010. F/8, 0.80, ISO 250.

My current setup is well-suited to this task. I place my Nikon D3S and Nikon 600 mm F/4 lens atop my Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod. The D3S is now a 6-year-old model; though superseded by newer models such as the D4S, the D3S remains one of the best low-light cameras ever made, easily creating usable photos at ISO 10000.

I put the D3S in mirror-up mode. I tighten the head to the firmest position and slowly follow the movement of the shortwing with my left hand, which holds the wand attached to the head. When the shortwing stops, I release my hand from the wand; because the head is tight and hard to move, the camera always rests in the position to which I guide it.

This beautiful male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was photographed on 2 May 2014 at a temporary photo blind that I set up near Yangkou, Jiangsu. This photo was taken at 15:42, and light was more plentiful. I added my 1.4x teleconverter to my 600 mm lens, set the aperture to F/11, the speed to 1/80, and the ISO to 1600. As always, I used my shutter-release cable.
This beautiful male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was photographed on 2 May 2014 at a temporary photo blind that I set up near Yangkou, Jiangsu. This photo was taken at 15:42, and light was more plentiful. I added my 1.4x teleconverter to my 600 mm lens, set the aperture to F/11, the speed to 1/80, and the ISO to 1600. As always, I used my shutter-release cable.

I press the button on my shutter-release cable, held in my right hand. The first press opens the mirror; I wait a second, then press the button again, opening the shutter and exposing the image.

Low light is not bad light. With patience, skill, and the right equipment, one can achieve lovely images of birds in near-darkness.

The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.
The shortwing seems to be looking at us, but actually it has no idea it is being watched. It is simply responding to the soft click of the camera. What an advantage blinds can give birders. Where else but in a blind can one view a Lesser Shortwing, among the shyest of birds, for 10 minutes? F/8, 1/5, ISO 10000.

Featured image: Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris just after its bath at photo blind in Longheng, Guangxi, China, 20 Dec. 2015. F/4, 1/8, ISO 10000.